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Time for Senators rookies to make their push

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Top defence prospect Jared Cowen will get a big chance to make a training camp impression when he lines up against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a pre-season game either Tuesday or Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre (Photo by Claus Anderson/Getty Images).
Patrick Wiercioch didn't hesitate when asked about the big moment  that is finally at hand.

Not to mention the opportunity that goes along with it.

"Can't wait. Can't wait," the young blueliner said earlier today when asked about getting to wear the Ottawa Senators jersey for the first time in a National Hockey League game.

While the 20-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., suited up in Senators colours at the rookie tournament last week in London, Ont., this is the big time. Even if it is just pre-season action, Wiercioch figures to be one giddy guy when he steps on the ice either Tuesday or Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, where Ottawa will play a pair of games against the provincial rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Even though it's exhibition, I'm sure it's going to be sold out and the fans are going to be pretty loud," he said. "The rookie tournament was a nice taste, (getting) to put the jersey on, and hopefully it keeps going from there."

To hear Senators head coach Cory Clouston tell it, it just might. With veteran Filip Kuba sidelined for at least five to six weeks with a broken right leg, a door has now opened on the Ottawa blue line. And Clouston said Wiercioch and Jared Cowen, two of the organization's top defence prospects, "have a legitimate shot" at starting the regulation season with the big club.

"They have to make us make tough decisions and give us options, whether it's (making) trades or who goes down to Binghamton (AHL) or wherever that may be. Filip Kuba going down gives an opportunity for somebody else, so you just never know."

Clouston's message to those pushing for jobs — count forwards Bobby Butler, Roman Wick and Mike Hoffman among that group — is a simple one.

"Just go out there and play the game," he said. "They've just got to play well. They've all shown, to a certain extent, what they're capable of doing in practice, but that doesn't mean a whole lot. They've got to do it in a game. They've got to go out and perform."

With eight pre-season games on the Senators slate, there's plenty of time to evaluate the young talent. Cowen and Wiercioch will each get one of the two games in Toronto, with Clouston saying one of them is likely to play both.

Cowen, who got two pre-season shots a year ago before being sent back to the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs, expects to settle in more comfortably this time.

"I think I'm more ready," said Cowen, who has already made it clear his goal this year is to land a roster spot in Ottawa. "I know last year, the first pre-season game felt a little shaky and the second one was a lot better. This year, I should feel a little bit more comfortable in the first game."

Wiercioch left the University of Denver after two years because he firmly believed he's got a real shot at making the jump to the NHL right now. That feeling hasn't wavered in the least. Asked what it'll take to make it happen, he said "I don't think it's going to be anything flashy. I'm an offensive-minded defenceman and I have to prove I can hold my own in my own end."

"You want to show when you're there that your skill level is about someone else's," added Wiercioch, the Senators' second-round pick (42nd overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "But in the end, it's a team game and if you don't fit the chemistry of the team, you're not going to earn a spot in that locker room. They're trying to build a winner here (but) the best players don't always mean the best team. We'll see what the coaches decide."

Around the boards

The Senators are taking 29 players on the road to Toronto. That group doesn't include veterans Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Sergei Gonchar, Alex Kovalev, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and goaltender Pascal Leclaire ... Clouston said Leclaire and Brian Elliott will see at least two full games of pre-season action and half of another ... Elliott, Mike Brodeur and Robin Lehner will split goaltending duties against the Leafs, with two playing on each night ... Tuesday's game is a Sportsnet Ontario regional broadcast, which means it's only available to providers who carry the Centre Ice package in pre-season. TSN will air Wednesday's rematch ... The Senators' home pre-season opener is Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens. It's a 7 p.m. start at Scotiabank Place.

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